1 July 2021 Susannah

An Insightful Review

Jane Austen books

It is a little while since I have mentioned my favourite writer in this newsletter. July is the month in which she died when she was only 41 (Jane Austen died on 18 July, 1817). Today, even if they haven’t read her novels, most people are aware that Jane Austen wrote ‘classic’ novels which are considered amongst the finest of all time (the very finest ever, in my view!). Today, those who are so foolish as to criticise her works, do so knowing that for more than 200 years, her books have delighted and challenged readers all over the world.

But Austen’s contemporary reviewers did not have 200 years of wisdom and received opinion upon which to draw. Some ignored her novels, others like Sir Walter Scott knew they had been outclassed, and some showed prescience and insight when they wrote about this new star on the literary scene.

I was thrilled when a book-loving friend recently sent me a review that came out the year after Jane Austen died (thanks, Chris). It was written by a Scot, Reverend Robert Morehead, and I think his review is wonderful – so insightful and well phrased, that I’d like to share it with all of you, in the hopes that it will encourage you to go and find those six novels and read them yet again:

Review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by Robert Morehead (1774-1842)

“When this period arrives, we have no hesitation in saying, that the delightful writer of the works now before us [Northanger Abbey and Persuasion], will be one of the most popular of English novelists, and if, indeed, we could point out the individual who, within a certain limited range, has attained the highest perfection of the art of novel writing, we should have little scruple in fixing upon her. She has confined herself, no doubt, to a narrow walk. She never operates among deep interests, uncommon characters, or vehement passions. The singular merit of her writings is, that we could conceive, with the slightest strain imagination, any one of her fictions to be realized in any town or village in England (for it is only English manners that she paints) that we think that we are reading the history of people whom we have seen thousands of times, and that with all this perfect commonness, both of incident and character, perhaps not one of her characters is to be found in any other book, portrayed at least in so lively and interesting a manner.

She he has much observation, – much fine sense, – much delicate humour, – many pathetic touches, – and throughout all her works, a most charitable view of human nature, and a tone of gentleness and purity, that are almost unequalled. It is unnecessary to give a particular account of the stories here presented to us. They have quite the same kind of merit with the preceding works of their author. As stories they are nothing in themselves, though beautiful and simple in their combination with the characters. The first is the more lively, and the second the more pathetic; but such is the facility and the seemingly exhaustless invention of this lady, that, we think, like a complete mistress of a musical instrument, she could have gone on in the same strain for ever, and her happy talent of seeing something to interest in the most common scenes of life, could evidently never have been without a field to work upon”

Extract from The Scots Magazine May 1818

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Featured image credit- Jane Austen colourised version https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Jane_Austen
Book covers images from https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/

Comments (15)

  1. Susannah Fullerton

    It is on my list to do, but it won’t be this year as I’m so flat out with my Tea with a Book Addict series. But it will happen!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’d never come across it before. He sounds like a clever man!

  2. john Power

    I think her novels have more depth than the review indicates, both in regard to character, which, as an earlier commentator remarked, are sometimes far from positive, and also in regard to the art of the novelist, with free indirect discourse long before other novelists.

    Also, I think Persuasion is a considerably more nuanced novel than Northanger Abbey. Abbey strikes me as remarkably different to her other five novels and not as delicate. The final three novels, Mansfield, Emma and Persuasion, strike me as being a class above the earlier three: I do not mean to denigrate the earlier ones, but rather to point out the delicacy and stunning technical innovativeness of the later ones. This reviewer does not seem to have noticed such distinctions though.

    That said, it is lovely to see her appreciated at the time by someone in addition to Sir Walter Scott, whose style was entirely different. I seem to recall that Byron might have been aware of her and thought highly of her, but I might not be remembering correctly.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Byron read any Jane Austen, but his wife did, and loved JA’s Pride and Prejudice.
      I agree with your comment about this review not fully appreciating the depth that is in JA’s novels. However, given the timing of the review, it is likely that he had only read them once, and as we know, it is frequent re-readings which bring that true appreciation of her brilliance.
      I do love Northanger Abbey, though it may not be as tecnically acocmplished as some of her other books, and there’s no doubt that her three later novels show more depth and maturity.

  3. Penny Morris

    Jane Austen’s novels have well and truly passed the test of time. The 10yr old granddaughter of a close friend has just finished reading Persuasion and while her understanding of the relationships portrayed within will be somewhat limited by virtue of her young age, she thoroughly enjoyed it and I have no doubt will happily reread it. So Jane Austen will continue to delight for many generations, I have no doubt. Penny

    • Susannah Fullerton

      How fabulous to know that a ten year old is reading and loving Persuasion!

  4. Donna Fletcher Crow

    What a wonderful review! He absolutely nailed it. Thank you for sharing.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I knew you’d enjoy it, Donna, as a true Austen fan.

  5. Anneke

    Excellent review though I am not sure I agree with: ‘and throughout all her works, a most charitable view of human nature, and a tone of gentleness and purity, that are almost unequalled’.

    Austen’s wit can be pretty caustic, as for purity in tone… no idea what that is supposed to mean.

    Thanks for sharing Susannah.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, she can be very caustic, I agree. But still a lovely review.

  6. Heather Grant

    A very beautiful review and certainly hits the mark with regard to Jane Austen’s writing. This review is something to keep and treasure.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I was thrilled to read it, as I’d never seen it before. Nice that some people appreciated Jane Austen so early.

      • Peter Danzer

        A very insightful review that put the importance of Jane Austen’s literary works in a nutshell. Quite a amazingly unprejudiced review considering the times it was written.I wonder if Robert Morehead has left a literary work behind because it should be expected of someone who can write such an eloquent review.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          A good question, so I looked him up. He was a poet and he also contributed essays to the Edinburgh Review, so he did enrich the world of literature with more than just this fabulous review.

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